The third month of the lunar calendar is the time of Mazu madness. Mazu, the Daoist goddess of the sea and "holy mother of the human world," is along with Wangye one of Taiwan's most important folk deities, and the 322-kilometer, eight-day-and-seven-night pilgrimage of the Tachia Mazu, which passes through Taichung, Changhua, Yunlin, and Chiayi counties, attracts more than a million worshippers and pilgrims every year. This pilgrimage, which is as much about people's relationships to each other as it is about their relationship to the deity, is more than just Taiwan's largest and most festive folk custom activity. Considering Mazu's influence on Chinese people around the world, it constitutes a world-class cultural legacy.
On April 5, or more precisely the 16th day of the third lunar month, preparations were being made for the pilgrimage of Tachia's Mazu, which would begin after midnight. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into Tachia's Chenlan Temple and the neighboring area, and the major television companies were busily setting up towers so they could film every minute of this important folk ceremony.
With the festivities going full blast at the temple, the Ba Ji Quan Association, ROC, demonstrated rarely displayed martial arts techniques, such as bi gua zhang, and also showed how to use various mysterious northern weapons, including the liuhe lance and the kunwu sword. These demonstrations were much in keeping with Tachia's history as a center of martial arts.
There are 53 neighborhoods within Tachia, and each has its own martial arts academy. For one and all, the spiritual life centers on the Chenlan Temple. In every neighborhood, they begin to polish their weapons and practice their moves after the Chinese New Year. Then before Mazu's birthday, their efforts become more focused on protecting Mazu. To help the 53 neighborhoods of Tachia revive their glorious martial arts legacies, the Cultural Bureau of the Taichung County Government has invited martial arts groups from Taiwan and abroad for the Tachia Mazu Culture Festival 2003. The 53 village martial arts academies of Tachia, of course, were also in attendance, including the Yihu Troupe, which is the only group in Taiwan to perform a Tiger Dance instead of a Lion Dance.
Meanwhile, as the Mazu icon left the city on Chingkuo Road, the HATA Traditional Drum Band from Korea drummed as they vigorously shook their heads. The Bolivian Inca Music Band performed mysterious and passionate Incan melodies on its flutes, pan flutes, and specially constructed drums. The Okayama Bitchu Kagura Kurashiki Emblem brought classical ceremonial drum music from Japan. And the Thai Folk Arts Group performed the marvelous dance of the Thai Royal Court with ever-changing hand gestures. Under the aegis of the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Taichung County, the Mazu pilgrimage was as much about artistic performance this year as it was about religious observance.
"The temple handled its ceremonies in the traditional manner, and the Cultural Bureau meticulously designed various activities based on considerations of cultural depth, internationalization, environmental protection and increasing the numbers of tourists," said Hung Chin-feng, director of the Cultural Bureau of the Taichung County Government. Upon close observation, you discover that this year's Mazu Festival had quite a few foreign faces. Some of the pilgrims carried "environmentally friendly" knapsacks with their own bowls and chopsticks (so as not to waste disposable ones on route). This year the locality also promoted quite a few travel packages, and the folk performance groups were of uniformly high quality--all award-winning groups with paid performers. It's an indication of how the Taichung County Government spared no effort to make this "flagship" cultural activity a success.
A pilgrimage home
In the temple plaza, row after row of people offered applause to the outstanding performance groups. Inside the temple, the steady stream of visitors carried beautifully embroidered Mazu prayer flags, waving them through the smoke of the burning incense to increase their spiritual power. The inside of the temple was so smoky that people were forced to squint.
Hsieh Chun-sheng, a 70-year-old from Houli, was carrying an old prayer flag, blackened by incense smoke, that was eliciting a lot of questions from curious pilgrims. "This prayer flag has a history of about 50 years," Hsieh explained. "When I was in the army, I made a pledge that as soon as there was peace, I would bring incense to Mazu. Ever since, this prayer flag has been a family treasure."
At dusk, traffic controls were imposed on the roads around the Chenlan Temple, and stands and stalls were set up everywhere. A stand selling protective amulets amused onlookers with its large sign: "The Best Gift Fallen from Heaven." In the parking lot of the Chenlan Temple, vegetarian fried noodles, rice-noodle soup, salty glutinous rice ball soup, bamboo shoot soup, stewed dried tofu and other snacks in more than 200 aluminum barrels were being offered free to the arriving believers. Off to the side, in the "central kitchen," around pots bigger than an old-fashioned child's bathtub, 30 volunteers armed with spatulas big enough to be shovels were hard at work cooking. The air was charged, and the festive excitement only grew as the appointed hour neared.
Eight parts of the pilgrimage
People used to refer to the Tachia Mazu Pilgrimage as "Mazu's return to her parents' house," using the Chinese phrase describing the traditional visit that Chinese families make to the mother's family two days after the lunar new year. The Tachia Mazu ought to be returning to the Mazu Temple in Meizhou, Fujian, on the mainland. But when Taiwan was separated from the mainland beginning in the Japanese colonial era, the journey was changed to the Mazu Temple in Peikang (Yunlin County), which also holds idols of Mazu's parents. Then in 1988, when the two temples got into a fight about their relative status, the destination of the pilgrimage was changed to Hsinkang's Fengtien Temple (in Chiayi).
Shortly after noon on May 5, the directors of the Chenlan Temple publicly read some documents, explaining this year's pilgrimage itinerary to Mazu. At 5:00 in the afternoon, they beat the drums and clanged the gongs, and after the gift presentation ceremony, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, Taichung County Chief Executive Huang Chung-sheng, Chenlan Temple Director Yen Ching-fu and other dignitaries came to see the ceremony of lifting the main Mazu statue, the secondary Mazu, and the Millennial Mazu from Meizhou onto their palanquins.
Once the statues of Mazu mounted their palanquins, the bearers never left their sides. For the 300-kilometer journey, the 20 bearers were split into two squads. This sacred duty is handled only by those physically able. Many devotees specially prepare snacks to give to the bearers. "For over 100 years, our Mazus have never used wheels," said Wu Ming-lung, who took over his grandfather's place as a bearer more than 20 years ago. "The palanquins move by manpower alone." The Mazu Pilgrimage ceremonies are split into eight parts: prayers for peace, mounting the palanquins, the departure of the procession, the arrival of the procession, prayers for prosperity, wishes for longevity, the return of the procession, and the safe reinstallation of the statues.
Although the statues themselves would not leave on their palanquins until five minutes after midnight, at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., the leaders of the procession began to start out. By that time, the area around the temple was already jam-packed. Various marchers in costumes with trailing sleeves were dressed up as other deities, including Qiye, Baye, Santaizi, local land gods, and Maitreya, the potbellied "Next Buddha." From time to time, they would spin around quickly. It was all very impressive. Members of the Chungchou Stilt Troupe, which has won the National Heritage Award, were up on stilts as tall as men, sparring and jumping up to do half-splits with their stilts in mid air. The troupe truly lived up to its accolades. A lion dance troupe performed on two-story-high wooden pillars in a truck, winning enthusiastic applause.
As midnight neared, the banner guard that walked in front of the Mazu palanquin lined the two sides of the street. Suddenly, three blasts of firecrackers pierced the night to announce the start of the procession.
"Five minutes to go... three minutes... one minute... 30 seconds," counted down the temple directors, with their eyes on their watches. "Three, two, one, start the journey!" The chatter ceased, and the eight bearers lifted the palanquin while the devotees in the temple plaza knelt down to pray.
Along the sides of the road, boxes of firecrackers exploded continually, and fire and smoke fill the air. As gongs and drums thundered, the police and volunteers worked to open a route through the crowd. But with waves of people drawn to the palanquin, in an hour's time it was only able to make it out of the temple plaza. With 100,000 pilgrims following, the impressive procession stretched for more than ten kilometers.
Crowds drawing crowds?
In fact, Tachia's performance troupes, firecrackers, and bustling scenes were broadcast by several television stations in such detail that viewers felt that they were practically participating themselves. But by focusing on these aspects, television made it seem that the religious belief in Mazu is only about clamor and excitement. The rowdy aspects of the festival were especially problematic this year since a bloody fight between two performance troupes attracted much media coverage and widespread rebuke.
"Watching television's broadcasts of all the color and festivity connected to the pilgrimage," said one member of the public, "only made me feel more and more that something has been lost--as if it were all fantasy. At such moments, I couldn't help but wonder what was the point of holding the Taiwan Mazu Cultural Festival?" And there were others who felt the same. "The pilgrims in the Mazu procession are like locusts, and the street vendors follow them like their shadow," said another. "Look at the piles of garbage they leave in their wake, the disposable chopsticks and styrofoam bowls scattered everywhere. Who knows how serious an environmental problem it poses?" Now, after television has been broadcasting Mazu's departure for several years, many can't help but wonder about the meaning of the event apart from all the clamor and commotion.
In the darkness of the suburbs, the deities on stilts and the floats left the procession, and the burning incense carried by the pilgrims flickered like tens of thousands of little stars shining in the night. Everybody gathered close, and the soft shuffle of their footsteps was accented by the jangle of bells from the prayer flags. It was like the slow launching of a boat into the night.
After the hubbub died down when the procession left Tachia, few images of the long trip ahead were captured on television. But this quieter part of the journey is where the spiritual content of the Mazu pilgrimage is found.
"I felt as if my heart were like a glass of dirty water, that was at first violently shaken. Then, after quietly being placed on a table, the small particles gradually settled...." Cheng Tsung-hsuan, winner of the Little Sun children's literature award, thus described his feeling about the pilgrimage in his award-winning essay "The Tachia Mazu Returns Home."
With prayer flags inserted in their knapsacks, many pilgrims walk silently along, making no attempt to touch the Mazu palanquin, slip under it, or pull out its hairs of wisdom for good luck. When they reach a temple along the way, they rest, pray and then get back on their journey. "By using the Mazu pilgrimage for spiritual self-cultivation and enduring the physical training to express my thanks for Mazu's benevolence, I warmed my heart much better than I would have by making offerings of money or lighting firecrackers or otherwise joining in the 'Mazu fever,'" said Lin Chin-lung, a junior high school teacher who went on the pilgrimage with a teachers' group last year.
The Cultural Bureau of Taichung County last year organized the teachers' pilgrimage group so as to disseminate understanding of the religious meaning of the pilgrimage and its transforming spiritual power. This year it added groups of volunteers who explained the cultural and historical significance of the festival and recounted their personal experiences with the majesty and power of the tradition.
Marching with the Mazu palanquin, the pilgrims lose connection to their position in society, and through the long journey and their worship of Mazu come to a new understanding about their faith or lives. The meaning behind the journey involves a three-part baptism of spiritual "separation, journey and return."
Letting Mazu take care of it
On their first pilgrimage, everyone wonders how they are going to satisfy the basic needs of life on the journey. Those who have made the pilgrimage many times will respond to their questions with a smile: "Relax! Let Mazu take care of everything and there won't be any problem."
And true enough, at every village there are people waiting for the pilgrimage. Early in the morning, they are outside with their altars and firecrackers, and they are even ready with all manner of food and drink. The farmers help to quench people's thirst with their own produce: guava, watermelon and sugarcane. Some have prepared pots of hot rice, noodle soup or salty rice porridge, and some considerate believers have even made rice balls, zungzi (sticky rice triangles), and corn on the cob, which they offer to the passing pilgrims. It's one of the warmest aspects of the pilgrimage. "If you want to eat it, take it, but don't be embarrassed to refuse it. Otherwise your load will only get heavier and heavier!" said one elderly woman to some callow first-timers.
In Huwei Township of Yunlin County, Huang Tun-hou said he has been offering food to the pilgrims every year since 1985. His family made what he offers the travelers: mantou and baozi buns, as well as soymilk. Every year at the time of the pilgrimage, many friends and relatives who have moved away from the village for work return to help out. It has become an important annual day of reunion.
The pilgrimage not only rights people's relationship to the deity, but inspired by Mazu, the innumerable interactions among people also reveal a breakdown in the distance, defensiveness and anxiety that characterize modern man. This sort of piousness and devotion doesn't make it to television.
O.K., so you let Mazu worry about food. And what about washing off the dust? Do you let Mazu take care of that too? That's right. Now and again during the course of the pilgrimage a "pilgrim's bath water truck" pulls up. This is due to a Mr. Huang from Changhua, who, having seen the pilgrims suffering through the whims of the weather on the open road, used his own metal working factory to turn a van into a "bath truck." In it pilgrims can wash off the dust from their journey before once again setting out on their way.
And when the pilgrims get tired, there are tour buses provided for them to catch some shut-eye. When the Mazu icon comes to rest at a temple along the way, some of the devotees just unroll their sleeping bags and bed down there, others sleep in vans, and still others in the homes of locals. Cheng Tsung-hsuan, who lives near Fengtienkung Temple in Hsinkang, has two tablets. On one is engraved: "Enthusiastic provider of public service," and on the other: "Friendship forever." Pilgrims gave them as thanks for his inviting them to stay in his house.
The several-kilometer-long procession passes through bustling towns and the green fields of the countryside. Eighty-seven-year-old Li Wen-tien, who has been making the pilgrimage for more than 50 years, leads the way at the front of the procession. But if you look carefully, you notice that most of the pilgrims are middle-aged women. Lined up in their impressive columns, it seems as if they were born for this mission. If you ask them why they have taken the pilgrimage, they say it's in gratitude for their grandchild making it through a crisis, or to help their children achieve career success, or to bless their husband with better health. They are consigning their concerns about their family members to Mazu, so that the deity will feel their sincerity and act upon their wishes. Are not their actions in themselves those of "holy mothers of the human world"?
At five minutes after midnight, the Tachia Mazu begins its journey accompanied by a crowd of tens of thousands.
Mazu, goddess of the sea and patron saint of seafarers, is the most important Daoist deity to speakers of the southern Fujianese dialect both in Taiwan and across the strait in Fujian. A Mazu from Leizhou in Fujian makes the journey alongside the golden Mazu of Tachia.
(left) The number and quality of groups accompanying Mazu's palanquin is impressive. On its own, the Tzusheng Mazu Association from Fengyuan that won the drawing to march at the front hired Heritage-Award-winning performers to join the festivities.
(middle) Holding the leader's banner, 80-year-old Li Wen-tien has been going on these Mazu pilgrimages for 50 years.
(far right) Seventy-year-old Hsieh Chun-sheng holds a prayer flag with 50 years of history.
Some rather sinister in appearence, others refined and compassionate, this impressive assembly of other Daoist deities clears the way for Mazu. Rich and interesting temple fairs are one of Taiwan's precious cultural assets.
(middle) Pilgrims from all over Taiwan pack the Chenlan Temple Plaza in Tachia. (far left) Whether riding or walking, the pilgrimage has the same meaning for these devotees. (below) When you're tired, take a rest inside a truck!
From Tachia's Chenlan Temple to Hsinkang's Fengtien Temple, the pilgrimage passes through four counties and municipalities in central and southern Taiwan. Everywhere along the way people eagerly await Mazu's arrival.